Whether you’re fresh out of college, well into your first year as an adult, living at home with your parents, or finally out on your own the one thing we all struggle with is our personal finances. There are about a million different tv shows, books, and websites out there all giving you different advice on what to do with your money. But which one is actually right?
I don’t know the answer to that one either, but as a post-grad myself I thought I’d share a few of my favorite sites and tips for saving money now that you’re paying (most) of your own bills and (unfortunately) student loans. First thing is first: nothing in this is definitive nor is it going to make sense for everyone. You can never look at David Ramsey or Suze Orman and take their advice religiously because everyone’s experiences and situations are different. That goes for anything in this post or any of these sites that I’m going to list. Find what is easiest for you and make it work for your situation.
Where I Came From (College) & Where I’m Going
To add some background to this post, I’m about 7 months out of college. I moved from my home in Kansas all the way down to Sunny Orlando and currently work at Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts Part-Time. I live in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 of my friends just a couple miles outside of property and suffice to say, pay all of my own bills and expenses. Before I lived at home and commuted to my University and worked as a Part-Time Librarian. Right now I’m mostly living the Full-Time (despite being PT) life, so most days just consists of work. I also have zero debt, which I will discuss below. However, that means I won’t be discussing paying off debt because my experience is limited.
How I graduated college debt free:
I’m extremely lucky to say that I was able to walk across the stage with a degree completely debt-free after 4.5 years of college. It’s not a situation most, if anyone, can really find themselves in today with the rising cost of tuition. To preface this, I paid for college myself. Outside of living with my parents, they did not pay any money towards my actual degree. Here’s how I did:
- Save. SAVE. I started thinking about college as a Freshman in high school. Any money that you get from holidays, put it into a saving account. Open one at 13, if not earlier, and start making deposits.
- Make the counselor’s or other career office at your school, your second home. Stalk the halls for any new scholarships, ESPECIALLY local ones. You’re going to have a very hard time winning any national scholarships despite how great of a student you are, so focus most of your time on the ones specific to your county or school. Some are offered early in your high school career or you can find out early what you should be adding to your resume. I paid for my whole first semester on local scholarships and even won a $1,000 4-year recurring scholarship. I participated in a local pageant and was able to win scholarship money and had a great experience with my friends. Every little bit helps.
- Search national scholarships in your free time. If searching is negatively impacting your schoolwork then stop. National scholarships are highly competitive and websites like Zinch and Fastweb are pushed a lot, but they are so difficult to win. I applied for quite a few and never heard back from a single one. Always put your time into local first.
- Apply for any kind of financial aid that applies even to your high school career. You’re going to have to take the SAT and the ACT, but guess what? Some of those tests are actually free if you fall under a certain financial bracket. Ask your scholarship advisor for a financial aid sheet for those tests and send it in, the worst they could say is no, and the best? You aren’t paying $50 for a test you HAVE to take. Also sign up on time, there is no point to pay late fees.
- Study for your state tests. ACTs and SATs are a pain and I could go into why I think they are semi-ridiculous, but I took the ACT 4 times and the SAT once and my highest score was my very first test. That’s because I invested in a practice book and studied the hardest subjects in the book for hours a day. I was given a higher amount of University Scholarships every year just for having a high score.
- Apply for University specific scholarships. Many colleges have general scholarships based on merit, financial aid, and county depending on the college you’re attending. The longer you’re college and have declared a major, they have specific department scholarships you can continue to apply for. Check them out and make sure you submit them on time.
- APPLY FOR FINANCIAL AID. I don’t care if you think your parents are filthy rich or you own a mansion or you “know” you’re just above the line to get any government assistance, you better be submitting your FAFSA. You are missing out on serious money and it is really SO easy. This is 100% the main way that I was able to graduate without any loans.
- Live at home. This one is a big hit or miss depending on where you’re going to college and your relationship with your parents. My parents allowed me to live at home rent-free as long as I continued my education. I paid personal bills like cell phone and car insurance but my parents took care of groceries and some other stipulations. Obviously, if you’re living on-campus you have an entire semester of rent, meal plans, and other expenses.
- Choose a college that offers your degree, and is far cheaper than your reach school. “Follow your dreams” they said. Dreams don’t always come in a single university with a bow on top. I could’ve traveled hours from home and went to my dream school up north, but the financial aid package left a lot to be desired. As much as I dreamed about leaving my small town and finally getting out on my own, I would’ve been taking out loans and working so hard just to go to school. However, if I chose my local University, the financial aid was much more appealing, they still offered my degree AND I would get to live at home. There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make, but you just have to choose the ones that make most sense. For me, I wanted to do the Disney College Program and major in Graphics. I didn’t need to spend $100k for that.
- Got a job and spend wisely. I don’t really need to go into this, because almost all of us had jobs in college if not before. Mine was a great job, really close to home, which allowed me to save on commute. You can check out jobs at your college, they’re usually really flexible on schedules.
The Curious Case of 2 Cars:
Another reason that I am able to live as I do now is that I own my car outright. Most times debt comes from a car, which is almost required in half of the US. Luckily for me, my extreme saving kept me out of hot water a couple of times when it came to making some adult purchases. Over the last 6 years I’ve spent $9,000 in cash (on my own) on two different cars from individual sellers for college. One one was terrible purchase and one was a great purchase, the car which I still own today. Therefore, I have zero payments on a great vehicle.
How to live on your own without going broke
General. In which i travel into adulthood
Find some sick roommates if you can’t afford to live on your own. Preferably, people that you know and/or are friends with. Make sure they don’t annoy the heck out of you because they’re going to be your new family. Pick people who will stay clean, have a similar taste as you, and are in similar situations. It will make life easier.
Coupon. I’m not even joking, you have to do this. Search on coupons.com or search target coupons if you have a printer. You can usually print two of each coupon and just keep looking weekly for items that you’re going to buy anyway. Sometimes I get coupons in the mail, use them. I don’t use a TON of coupons, but it helps.
Check deal sites like www.hip2save.com or www.totallytarget.com . This is how I find most of my groceries that I’m going to want to buy depending on the deal. As I’m writing this I was able to pick up some milk for free after using my coupons and rebate apps. I mostly shop at Target, but they post about walgreens and other stores as well. It lays out and links exact coupons that you’ll need for the best deals.
Download rebate and discount apps like Cartwheel for Target, Ibotta, or Mobisave. Also add extensions to your computer like mypoints and Ebates. I shop at Target religiously and buy almost market pantry exclusively, so there is always percentage discounts on their products. Sometimes you can find up to 50% off certain items like books, makeup, or even food.
Ibotta is the other app that I use most often. They update each week certain brand products that have dollar amount rebates. Sometimes they also have non-brand items like cheese. You can add them to your list and when you’re done shopping you scan all the items from the app, send in your receipt, and you get cash back. You redeem via giftcards or paypal once you hit $20 saved. I’ve cashed out one $20 giftcard so far and just hit the mark for another. I usually just submit them for more Target Giftcards. I was able to combine a sale with a $1 off coupon + a 50 cent rebate on ibotta which made my purchase free.
Mobisave is just like Ibotta except they offer a lot less rebates at a lower amount and it’s attached to your bank account. They do a lot of general products like oranges, but you get that money back immediately after submitting your receipt.
Ebates and Mypoints are similar in that you get cash back for online shopping. Mypoints also helps you find coupons or deals to add to your cart from specific stores. You can cash out with Ebates. Mypoints takes a bit longer and I haven’t been able to get anything off of there yet. Along with this make sure to google coupon codes before you purchase anything online. I found a 25% off deal at PapaJohns just by searching “Papa Johns Coupons”. The codes might not always work, but it’s worth the shot.
Invest in a Target Redcard if you’re a shopper. 100%, I signed up for the new Target Debit Card since I didn’t want to have another credit card. You can have that card attached to your checking account so it’s just like using your regular debit card but you still get 5% back for using the redcard. You also get free shipping online when you use your redcard and they offer special promos for their members sometimes.
Bring your reusable bags. Easy money, particularly at target you get 5 cents for every reusable bag you use. Save yourself the hassle and help the environment please!
Buy the necessities and buy in bulk. This is an obvious one. If you don’t think you need it, you probably don’t. Treat your self every once in awhile, but if one brand is on sale and the other isn’t, maybe go for the cheaper option. I find that Target brand ice cream is absolutely delicious and it’s usually much cheaper than other options. When there is a sale going on, I will also buy multiple items if I can fit it somewhere. Toilet Paper and Paper Towels is a good example, you’ll HAVE to have them so might as well get the most for your dollar.
Sign up for a library card. Seriously, our library is about 15 minutes away and they have all of the new books, movies, and even CDs that you can check out. Ours specifically delivers items to your door when you order them online and you can just return them at the due date. They offer so many different things, it’s ridiculous not to at least visit and see if anything entices you. Plus if you need a quiet space to work, you’ll have one.
Sign up for other free Rewards Cards and take advantage of offers. I am a big fan of mocha lattes from Dunkin Donuts and so I downloaded their new app and put some money on a giftcard. Everytime I use that giftcard, I get points which lead me to new rewards and free items. Also, everytime I get a medium iced drink, a receipt prints out with a survey. Complete the survey and you get a code for a free donut. Take it in, get another medium drink, donut, and you get a new receipt and the process repeats. Free donuts forever! Check your favorite stores and see if they have anything similar.
Time vs. Money. Work your butt off…if you want. The relation here is you’ll either have to make more money or spend less. For me, I keep my budget pretty tight which allows me to not have to work over 40 hours a week. However, if you have loans or higher expenses, pick up some hours at work, or if you can, get a second job. At Disney, I know some coworkers who will work 50-60 hour weeks.
Cheap/Fun things to do
Download Pokemon Go, grab some friends, and have a walk. Honestly, this is obvious right now. My friends and I will pack our mobile chargers, hop in the car, and drive over to the local park which is covered in pokestops and rare pokemon. We spend hours walking around with everyone catching Pokemon and just talking. It’s free and a great way to get exercise.
Attend local events. My local Barnes and Noble was having a YA Author Panel one night, free to the public. It was short and included a signing so I did end up spending some money, but I didn’t have to. There are a lot of free events in big areas! Also make sure to check out Museums and Science Centers. Often they have a day during the month where entry is free and if not, it’s still rather cheap and you’ll learn something.
Play some old-fashioned board games. The simplest thing that you can do. Right now our favorites are Munchkin and Cards Against Humanity. You can play for hours and not get bored. Just a couple weeks ago, 5 of us sat down and we ended up playing Munchkin for about 4 hours and had a great time.
Read a book. Anything. Non-fiction, graphic novel, picture book, a book about a video game, ANYTHING.
Learn something new. You can learn anything you want to on the internet. I love browsing Khan Academy’s website and watching any random series because they are all fascinating. Learn to Code at Code Academy or dive into philosophy over at John and Hank’s Crash Course Channel. Recently I’ve been diving into Duolingo to learn Spanish. I picked up a notebook and a Spanish Dictionary for about $5 from Target and sit down everyday to go over my notes.
spend your money wisely & budget
Your personal bank website (set up automatic deposits). Check this and do it often. When you are scared to check it is when you need to most. If you don’t write down what your spending immediately after you spend it, you’ll need to keep up to date on your account. I set up an automatic system that takes $100 out of my checking account each month and puts it in my savings account for emergencies. You don’t ever have to think about it and I know it’s getting put there every month. I also have a credit card that I use for gas and other essentials that’s connected to my checking account and I set up so the full amount of the charge is paid automatically. This helps me build my credit without EVER forgetting to pay. They say never buy something with a credit card you couldn’t pay immediately.
MINT. I don’t know how people aren’t using this website. It’s a secure and safe site with zero access to your account other than information. All info from your bank is transferred to this site and it is the #1 budgeting tool. You can see your total income for the month and follow each transaction you’ve made and separate it into categories. You set up a personal budget and see where your transactions are being placed and whether you’ve gone over. In the end it will tell you whether you were over or under budget for the month. You can also attach your other accounts such as a savings and set up goals like “Buy a Car” and see how much you’ve saved towards that goal. It also has a Credit Score, debt, and asset feature. I never log into my bank account anymore, I only use mint.
Credit Karma. I use this yearly to check my credit score and it gives you a lot more information than mint does. It gives you info from both Equifax and Transunion, your scores, and why they may be lower or higher than average. It goes over utilization, payment history, credit history, and total accounts. My score is very good, but it says that I have a very poor score when it comes to age of credit and total accounts because I only have one credit card and I’ve only had it for about a year. It also tells you whether certain factors are high or low impact on your score. This site will also update you when you can get a new credit score.
Friends and Family. Tell them about your goals and ask them to help you along the way. Ask them to find things to do that don’t cost so much money, offer alternatives. Chances are, everyone thinks they need to be better with their money and will be happy to find something cheaper to do. Save your change and put it in a jar and when you have enough, use it to have a pizza party.
resource links + other
Here are a list of links to websites, podcasts, and other discount stores to help you along the way.
Learn + Entertainment